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Bulls prey on the Bobcats for 10th win in last 13
by Sam Smith
Posted on Jan 26
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It’s coming down to this for the Bulls, who Saturday defeated the Charlotte Bobcats 89-87 to go back above .500 at 22-21. As D.J. Augustin goes, so go the Bulls.
“We did some good things,” said Bobcats coach Steve Clifford, whose team scored nine points in the last seven seconds to make the game uncomfortably close for the Bulls. “At the end of the day, Augustin hit six threes and that was the difference in the game.”
Half of those Augustin three-pointers were in the fourth quarter with 15 fourth quarter points as Augustin had a season high 28 points, his third game in the last four of at least 27 points as the Bulls broke from a 57-55 lead after three to pull away until the last seconds.
“I just let the game come to me and I had a nice fourth quarter,” said the former Bobcats lottery pick. “We didn’t change anything. We just kept playing and running our plays. We stayed true to our defense and everything turned out well.”
Taj Gibson had 13 points off the bench and Mike Dunleavy had 12 points and matched a season high with eight rebounds. Joakim Noah had his 16th consecutive game with double figure rebounds along with 11 points and eight assists. Noah’s passion and commitment is perhaps most important for the spirit and determination of this Bulls team. But they don’t count steps run, chests pounded and dives on the floor on the scoreboard. They add up the points, and Augustin has been irreplaceable for a Bulls team now 10-3 this month–8-3 since the Luol Deng trade–and making coach Tom Thibodeau a candidate for coach of the month.
No one has gone through what the Bulls have and done so much in losing Derrick Rose for the season and the first week of January trading leading scorer Deng for future considerations.
Starting point guard Kirk Hinrich has been injured. So the Bulls plug in Augustin, who was released by the Toronto Raptors. And over the last four games, Augustin is averaging 22 points and five assists with an amazing 17 of 29 threes for a 58.6 percent mark.
Augustin’s also been a remarkably clutch performer with 11 of his 27 in the fourth quarter Monday against the Lakers and 10 of his 27 in the fourth quarter Wednesday against the Cavs. And Saturday with the Bulls on a back to back after being pummeled at home Friday by the Clippers as Thibodeau sat Augustin in the fourth quarter for defensive issues, Augustin scored eight straight Bulls points after the Bulls pulled ahead 64-57. Augustin added a late three at the shot clock buzzer to put the Bulls ahead 80-68 with about three minutes left. It was enough to withstand that late Bobcats surge of three-pointers.
“D.J. was a huge pick up for us,” agreed Thibodeau. “We had a need with Derrick and Kirk going down and obviously he had a need as well. It was good for him and it has been great for us. The one thing that we knew because of how he played here in Charlotte was that he was fully capable. I also thought he had a wonderful year in Indiana even though he played minimal minutes. For whatever reason, he didn’t play in Toronto. But that worked out for us. To his credit, he was ready when this opportunity came around and he hit the ground running. It’s not just his individual talents but it is also what he is doing for our team. He is running our team well.”
Augustin’s really is one of the great stories in the NBA this season. Certainly the play of the Trail Blazers and Suns has been unexpected. And there have been breakout seasons from players like Lance Stephenson, Miles Plumlee, Isaiah Thomas and Terrence Jones.
But Augustin was practically out of the NBA after playing sparingly last season for the Indiana Pacers, who felt they upgraded replacing Augustin with C.J. Watson. And then the Raptors released Augustin less than two months into the season after they’d signed him to be their primary backup point guard. It was a roster issue after the trade of Rudy Gay as the Raptors acquired Greivis Vasquez. But released?
Augustin, who remains quiet and matter of fact, gathered himself. He didn’t get discouraged. He signed on with the Bulls, and a month later not only is he leading one of the hottest teams in the NBA, but he is the team’s principal fourth quarter scoring option.
In the last month, the Bulls have five players averaging in double figures led by Carlos Boozer at 16.6 per game. Augustin follows at 15 and then Noah at 14.2, Dunleavy at 13.3, Gibson at 12.9 and Jimmy Butler at 11.6. But Boozer rarely plays in the fourth quarters and Noah isn’t shooting much. The Bulls hope, anyway.
It’s not like there are that many offensive options on the Bulls.
But Augustin continues to find space for shots with his pump fake and pick and roll play. And he has developed an amazing chemistry with Noah that makes you think they’ve played together for years instead of just over a month.
After Augustin made his first three of the fourth quarter to put the Bulls ahead 67-57, former Bull Jannero Pargo with a season high 15 points made a jumper. Noah then hit Augustin with a beauty of a bounce pass on a back door cut for a layup and 69-59 Bulls lead. Three of Noah’s eight assists were on passes to Augustin. And Augustin found Noah cutting on a pick and roll for a two handed slam dunk in the third quarter as the teams wrestled back and forth in the second and third quarters with five lead changes and four ties.
There were long periods of missed shots and erratic play, though both teams coached by former assistants to Jeff Van Gundy play similarly with strong defense and deliberate on offense, running down the shot clock and often forcing late shots.
The Bobcats were missing Kemba Walker, though with what the Bulls have gone through they don’t offer much sympathy for players being out. Hinrich remained out with his hamstring issue.
The Bobcats got 32 points and 13 rebounds from Al Jefferson, who should be a contender along with Noah for an All Star reserve spot when the results are revealed Thursday night. But the Bobcats are relatively offensively challenged as well. So a 57-55 Bulls lead through three quarters was little surprise.
But the Bobcats had no late boost like the Bulls did with Augustin.
“I’m just out there playing freely and doing what I can,” said Augustin, who was the Bobcats starting point guard four seasons through 2011-12 until they decided to go with Walker. “All I think about is playing hard and whatever play Thibs runs I do my best. It’s always fun to play against your old team. I know Gerald (Henderson) pretty well; we played together for three years. And to go back and play against them is always fun.
“It’s just fun to go out there and win,” said Augustin. “We go out there every night and fight as a team. To get this win on the road against a tough team, it feels good. We get knocked down, but always get back up. That’s the motto for our team: Fight until the end of the game. And that’s what we did tonight. It’s been working for us.”
It’s never easy for these Bulls, but they’ve been making the big plays in the fourth quarter for most of the last month.
The Bulls got off to a good start with Dunleavy’s shooting and Noah’s defense on Jefferson to go ahead 16-12. But Noah this season goes out at the first time out for Gibson, and Jefferson took advantage of the smaller defender to put the Bobcats ahead 24-22 after one quarter with 10 straight points. Eventually, the Bulls, who rarely double team, had the player guarding poor shooting Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, usually Dunleavy, drop off to help on Jefferson when Noah was out.
Mike James gave the team some good minutes backing up Augustin. But Thibodeau got into James a bit vocally for leaving Pargo open for a three as he did with James earlier in the week on some blown coverages. But Thibodeau doesn’t hold grudges and had James out right afterward. James responded with a nice drive for a score. The Bulls also got some needed shooting from Tony Snell, who has a terrific shooting stroke. But from game to game you never know if he’ll be hesitant or aggressive. Snell was three of five on threes. It’s understandable as a rookie. But some games he can’t wait to pass and won’t even take a shot. Others he runs to spot up like he did Saturday. The Bulls can use his shooting.
Gibson began to get deep post position and score, but the second quarter degenerated into a carnival of missed chances as the teams tied at 39 at halftime.
The Bulls took a lead with Augustin working to Noah and then Augustin with the hockey assist as he went to Noah, who drew the defense and found Boozer cutting underneath for a reverse. Dunleavy then added a three around a Noah screen for a 53-47 lead. But Charlotte got Jefferson going again to pull within two after three quarters.
Snell opened the fourth with a three pointer. And then Noah found Butler for a driving slam dunk. That gave the Bulls an opening. And Augustin slammed the game shut on the Bobcats with his scoring before those desperate threes in the last seconds went in, seemingly surprising even the Bobcats’ players.
“It shows you. You media guys always think games are over,” said Thibodeau about media questioning of leaving players in games late. “Games never are over in the NBA.”
That’s right, nothing is over until Thibs says it’s over.
Was it over, after all, when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?
“This team, they know,” said Thibodeau. “We talked about what happened last night (blowout loss to Clippers) and what we had to do today. That’s the best part about this team. They’ve got great pride, they’re going to bounce back, they’re going to give you everything they have. For us, we’ve got to keep scratching out wins. We can never lose sight of how hard we have to play to give ourselves a chance to win, particularly when we’re short-handed.”
Though not short on one tough, little point guard.